Sunday, September 30, 2007

Critical Kudos

First things second, a word about my critical leanings. A long time ago I "liberated" a book from a library merely because it was one that I found myself consulting frequently and because it was a "reference" book not in circulation. It was a hardback copy of Georges Sadoul's Dictionary of Films, published by the University of Califoria Press. Later I paid for a paperback copy of Sadoul's Dictionary of Filmmakers. In them I learned about films that I, stuck at the time in a middlebrow Southern city (Columbia, South Carolina), could only dream of some day seeing. Some of them I still haven't seen.

Sadoul was a sensible, usable film critic. At the time I discovered his writings, I was also reading all of the American critics I could locate - James Agee, Dwight Macdonald, Stanley Kauffmann (who, amazingly, still writes his column for The New Republic), and John Simon. I knew about Pauline Kael and Andrew Sarris but I never read them avidly. The one critic who became - and remains - my personal favorite was Vernon Young, who wrote for the literary quarterly The Hudson Review for thirty years.

Among my contemporaries, the best film critic writing in English in America is Bert Cardullo. I recently unearthed a bit of plagiarism on his part in my Senses of Cinema piece A Hard Act to Follow. Despite this as yet unexplained (and unaccountable) lapse, he is a worthy successor to Agee, Macdonald, Kauffmann, Simon, and Young.

I read a few others infrequently, if only because, while I sometimes disagree with them, I never seem to learn anything from the disagreement - which is never so with a great critic. Also, Jonathan Rosenbaum, J Hoberman, and Godfrey Cheshire have the unfortunate habit of foisting their politics alongside their aesthetic judgements, a practice that is distracting because it is ultimately unedifying. Granted, I would find it more irritating if their politics weren't progressive, so I suppose I should probably count my blessings. To his credit (as a critic, not as a person), John Simon admitted in 1993 that "I have always sympathized with the autobiographical hero of Anatole France's Le Lys rouge who declares, 'I am not so devoid of all talents as to occupy myself with politics.' Yet this credo, which makes some sense coming from a French artist and intellectual, would foul the breath of an American speaker. For if politics has been one of the two enervating preoccupations in France (need I name the other?), it has trailed just about everything, notably sports, in this country."

I should point out that, after Vernon Young, John Simon is a close second among my favorite film critics.

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